Social Contract

        Author: ES (Research)

Social Contract


In his speech at the Asia Media Summit in April 2005, the Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Abdullah Badawi, cited Malaysia as a successful example where social contract had ensured peace and stability for 50 years.  "Perhaps the most significant aspect of the contract was the agreement by the indigenous people to grant citizenship to the immigrant Chinese and Indians. Chinese and Indians now sit in the federal Cabinet and state executive councils. In return, the immigrant communities agreed to special economic privileges for the indigenous people given their disadvantaged position."


Just recently, Dato’ Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik’s keynote address at the Anak Malaysia Convention stirred up discontent among certain groups.  He asserted that a political motivated reminder to the Chinese and Indian communities about the granting of citizenship as favour would be an obstacle to building a Bangsa Malaysia.  And therefore, such “‘historical burden’ must be removed” (Aug 13 2005).   This remark, however, was taken negatively by some to be challenging the social contract upon which the nation was founded.  Datuk Dr Ma’amor Osman, president of Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia, said the statement “was purposely made to anger the Malays and other bumiputras and belittled Malay supremacy” (Bernama, Aug 14 2005). Meanwhile, the UMNO Youth Chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein warned against questioning the issue of social contract (Bernama, Aug 15 2005).  


There seems to be a shift in interpreting and understanding the social contract.  Some believe that there has been a misinterpretation of the history, while others think that social contract has been simplistically reinterpreted based on the premises of Islam as the state religion and the Malay supremacy (Ketuanan Melayu). 


Historically, the social contract was originally the negotiation from various groups under the Reid Commission prior to 1957, before the drafting of the Merdeka Constitution.  Law experts have suggested that the contract must be read in light of both Reid Commission and Cobbold Commission reports.  



In 1956, a Constitutional Commission headed by Lord Reid came to Malaya for the drafting of a constitution for an independent Malaya.  In the process, UMNO, the leading partner of the UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance, was asked to agree to a ‘common nationality for the whole of the Federation’ (1).  That would allow “all persons (in Malaya) to qualify as citizen either by birth or by fulfilling requirements of residence and language and by taking oath of loyalty” (2).  


The leaders of the three communal parties agreed to first resolve differences and to speak with one voice to the commission. This was the origin of the social contract between the UMNO and the MCA leaders.  MCA acknowledged that the special rights of the Malays should be protected, and UMNO in return conceded that Chinese and other non-Malays should be granted easier citizenship rights based on the principle of jus soli (by birth). The Chinese were also allowed to continue to play a dominant role in economy.


The Reid Commission’s draft proposals were published in 1957 and were then reviewed and amended by a working committee in Malaya, and representatives of the Alliance, the Malay rulers, and the British government at a meeting in London.  Thus emerged the Merdeka Constitution (MC). Yang DiPertuan Agong was given the responsibility for safeguarding the “special position of the Malays” and the “legitimate interests of other communities” (3).


Before the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, another consultative process was initiated with North Borneo (now Sabah) and Sarawak in 1962.  From this process came forth a social contract (contained in the Cobbold Commission Report) similar to the consensus acquired in 1956-57.


The core of the contract as stated in the memorandum submitted by the Alliance was that Islam was to be the State religion, but the “observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religions and shall not imply that the State is not a secular state” (3)


The MC provisions evidently provided the framework for the 1963 Federal Constitution. The latter continued to cover the provisions of special rights and privileges of the Malays, national language, and religion without depriving “any person of any right and privilege, permit or license accrued to or enjoyed or held by him” (Article 153). It also included “several other issues which were/are matters of contention between the Malays and Chinese” (2).


In short, the Constitution, formulated in 1957 and 1963 through consultation and consensus of the nation’s founding fathers, is based on the social contract on which the country is founded.  The Constitution “ epitomises a social contract among equal partners that promises equality of all citizens – regardless of race and religion – in a pluralist democracy,” said Dr Ng Kam Weng, director of Kairos Research Centre (The Star, Nov 15 2003).


At the King’s birthday last year, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the government, vowed to hold fast to the social contract by protecting all ethnic groups against any form of oppression or discrimination (Star, Jun 6 2004).



1.      Barbara Watson & Leonard Andaya, A History of Malaysia. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2001, pp275-7.

2.      Leon Comber, A Historical Survey of Sino-Malay Relations. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia, pp35-50.

3.      Federal Constitution of Malaysia – a commentary. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Current Law Journal, 1986, pp13-4; 482-4.


Reported on 16 Aug 2005

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